Male authority under threat
Although, the main axis of patriarchal power is still the overall subordination of women and dominance of men—my research from both Kisii and Dar es Salaam clearly indicates that the deteriorating material conditions have seriously undermined the normative order of patriarchy in both Kisii and Dar es Salaam. While men are in power structurally and in theory, men have become increasingly marginalised and disempowered in practice. While men do have a relative freedom, compared to women, particularly in sexual matters, lack of access to income earning opportunities has made men’s role as heads of household and breadwinners a precarious one. Being reduced to ‘figureheads’ of households, men’s authority has come under threat and so has their identity and sense of self-esteem.
According to Ortner and Whitehead social value and prestige are the domain of social structure that most directly affects cultural notions of gender and sexuality (Ortner and Whitehead 1981). Moreover, as noted by Kandiyoti (1988) and in agreement with my findings, the key to and the irony of the patriarchal system reside in the fact that male authority has a material base while male responsibility is normatively constituted. This has made men’s roles and identities confusing and contradictory. Many men in my studies expressed feelings of helplessness, inadequacy and lack of self-esteem. They also increasingly seek psychiatric help (personal communication with heads of Psychiatric Department, Kisii District Hos-
Masculinities, Sexuality and Socio-Economic Change in Rural and Urban East Africa
pital and Muhimbili Medical Centre, Dar es Salaam, respectively). Moreover, local newspapers are filled with advertisements from psychiatrists and herbalists offering to assist men with problems of depression and loss of sexual power. Local markets and traditional healers, of course, also sell a number of different herbs and roots to prevent impotence and to strengthen men’s sexual powers.
As my findings show, contemporary and normative concepts of a ‘real’ man continue to be based on ancient beliefs, including male (sexual) control over women. As documented in numerous studies, in earlier times, households in East Africa were frequently polygynous. This permitted men to have sexual relations with several women. Men were not used to sexual abstinence, to be faithful or to practise safe sex. Such traditional norms and values are still deeply imbedded in most men interviewed. But today most men cannot afford several wives (lack of land, lack of money for bride price etc.). Most boys, though, grow up believing that they are not only the superior gender, but also that their identity as men is defined through sexual ability and accomplishment. “A man who cannot handle several women is not a real man”, young and old men would argue both in Kisii and in Dar es Salaam. And women would agree. However, with an escalating HIV/AIDS epidemic, such beliefs cannot be legitimised today. Even if men know that, they are not ready to admit it. Thus, my findings raise the need to explore in more detail: What is masculinity? Why is it so valuable, and how do notions of masculinity relate to sexuality?